Carmarthenshire County Council met yesterday to approve yet another raft of changes to its constitution. This blog has pointed out on several previous occasions how over the years the council has hacked away at the rules which govern its conduct to remove transparency, reduce democratic accountability to vanishing point and abolish rights of ordinary citizens to a fair hearing.
Some of the changes made in recent years have verged on paranoia. For example, it was found necessary to change the constitution a couple of years ago because one individual had exercised his right to ask the council a question (about food sourcing). The problem was that he lived in a neighbouring county. Clearly that outrageous abuse had to be stopped, and so it was.
The latest set of proposals is long and complex, but here are just a few tasters:
- Parents who wish to appeal decisions relating to school transport will lose the right for their appeal to be heard by elected councillors. Appeals will in future be heard by officers of the council only (i.e. the people responsible for making the decision which is being appealed).
- Rulings made by the chair of the council on the application of the Constitution or the proceedings of council meetings may not be challenged. No matter how daft or wrong.
- More powers to appoint representatives to external bodies will be delegated by councillors to the Executive Board.
- Members of Scrutiny Committees may request that members of the ruling Executive Board attend their meetings and "assist them". The requirement for members of the Executive to answer questions at such meetings has been dropped.
- The right of scrutiny committees to call extraordinary meetings either by a decision of the chair or by means of a majority vote is abolished; henceforth, the Chief Executive will have to approve such meetings.
- Meetings of the full council, committees and the Executive Board will be open to the public and press, subject to the usual restrictions (exempt information). Executive Board Decision Meetings (i.e. not the public rubber-stamping sessions) will however be closed to public and press.
- The rights of scrutiny committees to propose amendments to the Executive Board and provide advice to the Executive Board on major issues before final decisions are made are also curtailed. In future they may only "contribute" to policy development, etc.
Scrutiny committees will retain the right to call-in decisions made by the ruling executive if a majority of members votes to call a decision in. The call-in request then has to leap through a number of hoops before it will be considered, and may be vetoed by the Monitoring Officer. If the request somehow manages to survive that process, the committee will be given cooling-off time to reconsider its call-in. They may, possibly under pressure from the whips, realise the error of their ways and drop their call-in. But if all else fails, they may refer the request for a decision to be reconsidered back to the Executive Board. The Executive Board may (racing certainty: will) decide that its decision was correct and reject the call-in. No further call-in is then allowed.
Kafka would love that.
There are myriads of other proposed changes, some of which are required because of changes in government legislation. Others are home-made in Carmarthen, and it may well be that buried away deep in the verbiage there are more nasty land-mines.
The overall drift of the changes is to reduce the powers of elected councillors still further, to reduce the need for the Executive and officers to consult with elected councillors and to curtail both the number and the powers of the scrutiny committees.
All of this vast patchwork quilt of changes was "considered" and approved in rather less time than it would take anyone to read them.
It's what Vladimir Putin calls "managed democracy".